LEXINGTON, Ohio — As the laps dwindled, Chris Buescher's anxiety rose.
The 21-year-old rookie was leading the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course — gunning for his first victory — but was running out of fuel.
"I was really focusing on taking deep breaths at that point," Buescher said about the final laps before he hung on to capture the Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 on Saturday for his first victory. "I found myself on every straightaway just telling myself to relax a little bit."
Buescher took the lead on the 68th of 90 laps and sipped fuel the rest of the way to hold off Regan Smith and Brian Scott.
Smith, in particular, was waiting for Buescher to run out of gas.
"I was surprised that he made it," he said. "I didn't have much more for him there at the end. I was sitting there watching him, thinking at any point he was going to run out."
Buescher, driving the Roush Fenway Racing Ford sponsored by — fittingly — Nationwide Children's Hospital in nearby Columbus, took the lead from Brendan Gaughan and weathered a restart to hold on the rest of the way.
"We do have a fuel-pressure gauge in the car and I think it was with two (laps) to go it started flashing at me," Buescher said. "On certain areas of the track, (the car) was just starving for fuel. I spent the last lap just kind of shaking (the car) back and forth a little bit to make sure we got all the fuel we could into the pickup. It was nerve wracking to say the least."
In the end he had enough left over to make a celebratory run — in the wrong direction — down the home straight after the rest of the field had left the track.
"It was cool to be able to pull it off and to have plenty left over for a good burnout at the end," Buescher said with a grin.
Crew chief Scott Graves had no choice but to keep Buescher on the track, even as his fuel evaporated. Buescher went the final 38 laps without topping off his tank.
"This isn't the first time this year," Graves said of Buescher's ability to make his gas last. "We did it at Loudon as well and surprised a lot of people (while finishing fifth). He's quickly gaining the reputation as a fuel-saver, for sure."
The victory was Buescher's first in 30 NASCAR Nationwide Series races, also representing his eighth top-10 finish in 2014.
Chase Elliott, who finished fourth, retained his lead in the season standings by 10 points over Smith.
Alex Tagliani was fifth, followed by Justin Marks, Elliott Sadler, Dylan Kwasniewski, Trevor Bayne and Dakoda Armstrong.
During the fourth caution of the day on lap 51 — Kenny Habul drifted off the course and into the grass — pole-sitter Sam Hornish Jr. stunned the crowd strung along the 2.258-mile track by pulling into the pits and then turning into the garage area. His crew worked feverishly to get him back on the track, but his day was done — after leading or being close to the lead all the way to that point — due to missing a shift that led to engine trouble.
Scott and Tagliani — his closest pursuers — pitted and dug in for the finish.
Bayne and then Gaughan traded quick leads before Buescher took over.
On Lap 58, Tagliani nosed Scott off the track briefly. Scott had to pit soon after, with steam rolling off his overheated engine. He was able to finish — although he never made up the lost time.
"I felt like we were the car to beat," Scott said, calling the outcome heartbreaking. "I just had a run-in with a guy that doesn't race in our series regularly and really has nothing to lose. He got inside me and I gave him room, he missed the corner and drove me into the grass. It clogged our grill and made us change our pit strategy because we were blowing water. That chain of events right there put us behind the guys we were ultimately racing at the end to win."
With others pitting or falling back, Buescher took control. With under 20 laps to go, Buescher outdueled Smith and took advantage of the narrow track to maintain his lead. Under a threatening sky, he built his lead to 1.5 seconds with 10 laps remaining.
Then the suspense built as the laps piled up and Buescher's tank grew emptier.
"I saw him shake the car once on the last lap and thought he was running out there," Smith said, mystified by how Buescher was able to keep going. "But the record book doesn't say how you won. It just says that you won."